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Why Blocking The Revolving Door Won't Fix Human Rights Watch

By Kieran Kelly

20 June, 2014

A recent open letter decrying the links between Human Rights Watch ( HRW) Western powers was signed by two Nobel peace laureates and over 100 scholars. Belén Fernández wrote an outline of the problem – the “revolving door” which surely has a corrupting effect. However well-meaning most HRW employees are, and no matter how much of HRW's work is well-meaning, the organisation is tainted and it is not independent. The same is true of Amnesty International ( AI). However, preventing the continuation of relations between these organisations and the US State Department will not fix the greatest problems. It is a necessary but woefully insufficient measure. In order to become functioning independent human rights organisations both AI and HRW must actively oppose imperial power. They must reject all actions which facilitate attacks by powerful states on those less powerful. If they do not do that they are doomed to remain tools of empire, promoting interventions that do more harm than decades of good work can undo.

Selective Amplification

As the US unleashed its military might on Viet Nam, it also unleashed charities. USAID provided funds for many and the US extended a paternal possessive wing over all. Helping the less fortunate, after all, is what the US is all about. By their own account that is why the US had troops in the country – to help those too weak to defend themselves. And USAID was part of the strategic approach in Viet Nam, and it remains so today. ( NGOs were told by Andrew Natsios in 2003 that they were "an arm of the US government" and he threatened to rip up USAID contracts of any NGO that failed to act as such.)

The people of South Viet Nam needed charitable assistance. Many were orphaned, dispos sessed, injured, diseased or impoverished. Yet many charity workers, singly or en masse , came to the conclusion that they could not, in conscience, continue rendering aid. The charities were doing the same work as that of the US military civic action programs. They weren't winning the hearts and minds of Vietnamese, as much as they were providing public relations cover for the destruction being wrought by the full weight of US military might.

The problem is that by structural reflex a power as dominant as the US automatically co-opts all that can be co-opted. The vast majority of massacres by US troops – such as those documented by Nick Turse – were not reported by journalists. The vast majority of villages destroyed were not reported. But it almost seemed that every time a Westerner dug a well there were 30 cameras pointed at him. It was inevitable. The US government had the capability of promoting coverage of the one and suppressing coverage of the other.

There is a persistent myth that bold journalists spearheaded the growing opposition to the war in Indochina by fearless reporting, There is also a journalistic myth that reporting is shaped by “news values” which, for better or worse, are responsive to audience interests - “if it bleeds it leads” “man bites dog”. This is utterly wrong on both counts. Most reporting from the field in Viet Nam was coverage of those things that the US military arranged to be covered including huge amounts of coverage of civic action programs. Far from being sensational, these stories were as dull as dirty dishwater and just as good at obscuring the ugly truth that lay beneath.

There is the same inevitable selectivity with regard to the actions of human rights NGOs. Even without the corruption which has occurred in AI and HRW, the US will always be able to amplify any accusations levelled against its enemies and targets, while it also wields a great amount of power to deflect and diffuse criticism aimed at itself.

Promoting Slaughter

In October 1990 AI gave crucial support to the fraudulent claim that Iraqi personnel had murdered premature babies by removing them from incubators . They would later retract that support, but less than three weeks after the incubator lies Amnesty released a report on atrocities carried out by Iraqis in Kuwait . The report contained unconfirmed as well as independently verified reports of atrocities. Atrocities were definitely taking place, but why dramatise the report with unconfirmed allegations? Amnesty's answer: to “raise awareness”? But, the entire world was already watching. Saddam Hussein was the most vilified person on the planet. George Bush had labelled him as worse than Hitler .

No one should underestimate AI's impact in this instance. People were wary of US warmongering, but atrocity propaganda is a very powerful tool. It is one of the ironies of human existence that people are mobilised to commit atrocities by stories, true or false, of the atrocities of the targeted enemy. AI helped unleash a quarter century of insecurity, fear, death and grief on the Iraqi people. With those actions alone AI destroyed its value to humanity – taking all of the hard work of dedicated and sometimes brave and self-sacrificing individuals and converting that into a form of capital to be spent by murderous warmongers.

An Army of Straw Men “Marching in Lockstep”

Democracy Now! hosted a lively and enlightening debate between Keane Bhatt and Reed Brody of HRW.

I'm normally one to doubt the assumed goodwill of various people. I find it silly to say that “nobody doubts” or “nobody can doubt” the good intentions of people doing bad things. With any politician or bureaucrat there is always considerable grounds to doubt good intentions. Not only does power corrupt, but so does prestige and money. In our dysfunctional world, anyone who does achieve success should be viewed with the greatest suspicion. Orthodox thinking is far more ubiquitous now than, say, the mid-20 th century in the West. It is very rare for anyone to achieve recognition without “drinking the Kool-aid”, which is often the elixir of self-satisfaction.

In the case of Reed Brody I am willing to concede, that he seems to be the genuine article – a humanitarian famed for taking on US-backed dictators. I don't know how he has failed to notice the toxic nature of HRW, but I suspect that the nature of his responses to Bhatt provide some insight.

Keane Bhatt raised serious issues about HRW. Some of the issues were disputed. Brody rejected the characterisation of HRW as having a “revolving door”. But he also repeatedly said that Bhatt was wrong because HRW did not “march in lockstep” with the US State Department. This was one of a number of “straw man” arguments. Bhatt never claimed that HRW did “march in lockstep”, so Brody is creating a straw man to knock down in order to create the impression, for himself as much as for other people, that he has demolished one of Bhatt's arguments.

Brody insisted that Bhatt and other critics of HRW were motivated by support for the Venezuelan government. This fallacy is called the “appeal to motive”. It isn't just a tricky debater's ploy, in fact in debates such as this one it tends to fail. It indicates the natural thought processes of Brody and others in that sort of position. Presumably Brody already knows that HRW are the good guys, so when serious accusations are levelled at HRW his mind does not focus on the validity of the arguments. He simply wants to know why people are attacking HRW. Once he has found what he thinks is the best answer, he must naturally believe that once he explains it to others they will all, like him, feel that the puzzle is resolved.

This is why delegitimisation is such an important tool. Those convinced of their own benevolence can only explain profound criticism by saying that the source itself is tainted. This is true of any White House or State Dept. spokesperson who knows that the US is a force for good in the world, but it is also true of any NGO or alternative media that have proven their goodness by criticising the US and Israel. The people who attack them are crackpots, malcontents and ideological zealots. Any substance in their criticisms is merely the substance of blemishes on the surface of the radiant sphere that describes the whole.

The Straw Giant

Brody's most powerful counter to Bhatt's claims, on the surface at least, was his invitation to everyone to visit the HRW website : “I think anyone who is familiar with our work, anyone who takes the time to look at our website, would see, first of all, that we routinely criticize the U.S. government.” It is true. Brody is trying to show us that glowing orb he sees as the truth – the real HRW which boldly takes on the crimes of the US and Israel. Once you embrace the underlying assumption of fundamental benevolence then you will see things the way that Brody and his colleagues see things. Collections of people like this are known as “reference groups”.

“ Reference groups” share values and share assumptions. The problem with such groups is not that the assumptions are necessarily invalid, but rather that their validity is never tested. No one inside the group can originate challenges to assumption that they themselves hold, and when someone outside the group challenges them, they respond with the sort of delegitimising thought processes described above. Reference groups help to cause what is known as “groupthink” and also what is known as “confirmation bias”, when people focus on and give greater weight to evidence that fits preconceived conclusions.

There are two major problems with adopting the Brody's view. One is that, even viewing HRW in isolation, it cannot explain the substance of those accusations of bias. These are real issues, and simply saying that HRW is often critical of the US doesn't address the substance. The second is that, as mentioned, if HRW does not actively guard against co-optation, the nature of our society will ensure that any even-handed approach will become distorted in transmission to the public.

In the final analysis, the HRW website and the internal view of its activists and employees is another straw man. It is an impressive straw man – compelling and seemingly substantive. But it is not the internal functioning of HRW which is the final measure of its nature, and it is not the front it presents to those engaged enough to seek it out. HRW's true nature is how it functions in our society.

Where There's Smoke...

Humanity is complex, and its institutions equally so. But if you ascribe an essence to something there is a severe limit on how much of its character you can ascribe to asymptomatic products of human complexity. In other words, Human Rights Watch cannot be “independent” if it has any ties with regimes which commit human rights abuses. As Fern á ndez writes:

“ Javier Solana, for example, was NATO secretary general during the 1999 assault on Yugoslavia, an event HRW itself described as entailing “violations of international humanitarian law.” Solana is now on the group's Board of Directors .”

So by HRW's own lights, there is prima facie evidence that Solana is a war criminal – yet he is appointed to their board of directors. That is not a aberrant little matter that has no bearing on the otherwise independent nature of HRW, it is actually all the proof that is needed that HRW is not independent at all. Let's not be stupid about this – if HRW's employees and activists actually were independent of thought and action they would never have allowed someone suspected of war crimes to be appointed to their board.

If HRW workers were truly independent, they would not tolerate their bosses saying that there is “a legitimate place” for extraordinary renditions. If HRW workers were really independent they would revolt against executive director Kenneth Roth tweeting his support for military intervention in Syria.

Brody objected strongly to concept of HRW having a “revolving door” with the US government, but that is another straw man. “Revolving door” is a subjective usage. It is great for drawing attention to the issue, but easy for someone like Brody to dismiss. But you don't need a “revolving door” to be compromised. Brody tried to talk down the numbers, but after the debate Bhatt tweeted showing an email from one of two HRW employees to join Samantha Power's team.

This isn't just about Washington D.C. political actors either. Along with even further ties to US government Bhatt has also revealed:

“ To be sure, not all of the organization's leadership has been so involved in dubious political activities. Many HRW board members are simply investment bankers, like board co-chairs Joel Motley of Public Capital Advisors, LLC, and Hassan Elmasry, of Independent Franchise Partners, LLP. HRW Vice Chair John Studzinski is a senior managing director at The Blackstone Group, a private equity firm founded by Peter G. Peterson, the billionaire who has passionately sought to eviscerate Social Security and Medicare. And although Julien J. Studley, the Vice Chair of the Americas advisory committee, once served in the U.S. Army's psychological warfare unit, he is now just another wealthy real-estate tycoon in New York.”

Magnified Bias

People defend HRW on the basis of the undoubted good work they do, but that is beside the point. An academic engaged in human rights issues, such as Stephen Zunes here , may be in a situation any irregularities or biases seem of minor importance compared to their invaluable documentation of crimes by numerous regimes. However, as Bhatt points out: “ documentation is different from advocacy and operationalizing that research.”

HRW, like AI, is biased in favour of Western interests. Here , for example, you can see some of the criticisms levelled at HRW over its disproportionate and inaccurate condemnation of human rights abuses in Venezuela. It is bad enough that HRW tried to create a sense of equivalence in human rights abuses and political repression between Venezuela and Colombia, but you would have to be very stupid indeed to be blind to the potential of such a report to be used for ill-purposes. Just like the AI report on Kuwait under Iraqi population, such a report his a negative impact out of all proportion with its significance. In private and public diplomacy this is ammunition for US interventionists.

Every time HRW condemns an enemy of the West, they themselves put greater energy into “awareness”; Western bureaucrats and politicians suddenly decide that they are, in this instance, an authoritative and independent voice; and, most of all, the media really report it. And when I write “really report” I mean that it enters the echo-chamber of the real media agenda. It is said that US media have perfected the art of lying “by only telling the truth once”. Something reported a dozen pages in to the NYT is simply not part of reality for the vast majority of people. If you want to understand what HRW is really about watch mainstream news and current affairs programming.

We who read the sort of articles you get on this website, such as the one you are reading now, form a minority reference group consisting of people who know a lot more detail about political events than most members of the public. We should not forget, however, that even watching the television news regularly is more than most people manage. Media analyst Andrew Tyndall, who compiles reports on network news broadcasts, points out in an interview with Danny Schechter that network news broadcasts have far greater viewer numbers than cable news – about 5 times as many. So the really real HRW, in practice, isn't even what you would get from CNN, but rather that which is on the nightly news broadcasts.

You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train”

Bhatt points out the double standard of HRW advocacy: “Let's take the case of drone strikes in Yemen, for example. What Human Rights Watch is advocating is not for the immediate cessation of drone strikes, which have killed hundreds of civilians around the world. What they're asking for is greater transparency on the legal rationale for continuation of those drone strikes. So, the idea that the United States can treat the entire planet as a legitimate battlefield is simply unquestioned.” In contrast we have seen Roth's call for intervention in Syria, but even if this were not the case there is an unavoidable pitfall in criticising enemies of the West.

The fact is that when HRW condemns an enemy of the West, their own advocacy in terms of solutions is only part of the picture. By highlighting that there is a problem HRW effectively arms those in political power who seek to create a casus belli – a pretext for deadly intervention. They should also recognise that when the US seeks to intervene as a matter of course they will create disinformation through covert agencies which will inevitably target groups like HRW in just the same way that they target media outlets in order to propagate the disinformation.

Equally, any concession to the sensibilities of US leaders, any extra softness such as that displayed over the use of deadly drone programme, effectively means that HRW is acting as an agent in a “limited hangout” action. By soft-selling the criminality of US actions, they actually become part of a discourse which normalises those crimes, making them seem legitimately disputed actions rather than unambiguous crimes. The lack of urgency signals a lesser moral weighting while also allowing acclimatisation among a public who become like the proverbial boiling frogs.

Reforming groups like HRW is much more complicated than simply enacting rules about employing people who have previously worked in governments implicated in human rights abuses. Here is my three-step programme:

1) Disembed: Clearly HRW cannot legitimately hire people who have worked in policy related functions at the US government. It is sickening that they should think even one such person is acceptable. That goes equally for putting the former Secretary General of NATO on the board of directors. They should also have a ban on those from high-level military, police or intelligence backgrounds. These are the sort of organisations usually implicated in human rights abuses, and it should be as clear as day that they do not belong working in human rights organisations. They should also be wary of hiring those who have worked at low-levels in such organisations because they will be inclined to identify with potential human rights abusers and because their insider perspective will often be privileged as being “expertise”.

Reed Brody proudly embraces the idea that there is a “revolving door” between HRW and the United Nations secretariat. Given that much of the UN bureaucracy is devoted to ostensible human rights functions it may be hard to avoid interpenetration, but it is hardly something to tout as a source of credibility. Under a UN flag, millions of civilian casualties were caused in the bombing of Korea. Under a UN flag, an estimated 1 million Iraqis died due to genocidal sanctions, and in Haiti blue-helmeted troops have provided support for death squads and massacres. In addition, the UN is inevitably a corrupting hierarchy in which even those with the best intentions must become careerists in order to acquire the power and influence to effect positive change. This sort of relationship makes a hollow mockery of the notion of “independence”. Power structures such as that of the UN corrupt because they disproportionately favour those who are not burdened with unbending principles and thus tend to empower the self-deluding and the sociopathically dishonest.

Disembedding will require more than mere hiring policy changes, it will require a psychological negation of embeddedness. The rank and file of HRW will have to utterly reject the close identification of their superiors with those who wield state power.

It can be done. In 2012 people were naming Amnesty a “shill” or the “ propaganda arm ” of NATO or as an “ imperialist tool ”. Consternation has particularly been fueled by Amnesty USA's crucial support for NATO's ongoing occupation of Afghanistan. Ann Wright and Colleen Rowley wrote of “ announcements posted online as well as billboard advertisements on Chicago bus stops , telling “ NATO: Keep the Progress Going!' ” The CEO of AIUSA at the time was Suzanne Nossel – former employee of HRW, the US State Department, the UN and the Wall Street Journal . If those aren't insider credits enough, she is also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations . Do you think that that qualifies her as part of the US political elite? I do. But AI members expressed their displeasure and Nossel resigned soon after. A small victory perhaps, but a sign that change is possible.

2. Say No to “Humanitarian Intervention”: In the debate on Democracy Now! Reed Brody cited R2P: “You know, the countries of the world, in 2005, all the countries at the General Assembly, agreed that there were certain circumstances that invoked what they called the right to protect, when it may be necessary for the international community even to use force. And that's the lesson of Srebrenica. It's the lesson of Rwanda.”

You should not trust anyone who is a professional human rights worker when they cite R2P and cannot even get the name right. “R2P” stands for “Responsibility to Protect”. Brody's mistake, however, is perfectly symptomatic. For Western interventionists it is seen as a “right”, and indeed their discourse would have people believe that “R2P” was some sort of international enabling act. The way R2P is discussed creates an impression that if human rights abuses have been detected, the US or NATO can simply decide for themselves if they feel like abrogating the sovereignty of another country and using whatever force they claim to be necessary – as if they had never harmed people while claiming to be acting for their own good in the past.

This idea of R2P that is widely propounded in the public discourse is a complete distortion. The UN measure from 2005 is a norm which must be in compliance with international law. More specifically, it does not in any way supersede the UN Charter and licence any action outside of the normal framework for legal intervention. That means that, given that immediate self-defence is not an issue, no military action can be taken under R2P without UN Security Council authorisation.

On the subject of distortions and nonsense – I may not be an expert on Rwanda, but I have written on the subject and I know that people are hideously misled by the popular narrative. Not only was the US instrumental in creating the conditions which spiralled into a bloodbath, but the US also blocked others who wished to intervene to prevent the genocide. Even if they could not have foreseen the full extent of the horror that was to unfold, the US intervened recklessly without concern for innocent victims and now it has the gall to say that the resultant genocide shows that it should intervene more often. Brody citing Rwanda and Srebrenica is a facile cliché and it is manipulative. These events are simply meant to symbolise savage-horrors-that-the-West-should-have-prevented , provoking emotion without thought.

3. Do No Harm!: For organisations like HRW to ever become functional promoters of human rights they must actively ensure that none of their actions cause serious harm to people. That means that they cannot side with the powerful against the weak. People working in HRW must be alert to the actions of their leadership and be prepared to resist any distortions of emphasis liable to lead to co-optation by Western interventionists.

Reed Brody is quite right about one thing, the HRW website is full of criticisms of the US and its clients in poorer states. Anything that suggests that such a rampant human rights abuser has a role in preventing human rights abuses by weaker regimes must be viewed with suspicion.

When you consider the US role in human rights abuses in Chile, Indonesia, Argentina, Guatemala, Iran, South Africa and so forth; and then you add its interventions in Grenada, Panama, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere; and then you add its wars in Indochina, Iraq and Afghanistan; you quickly see that the US is in a league of its own as a human rights abuser. Moreover, if you also consider that it played a crucial aggravating role in Rwanda and Cambodia and even the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, you begin to wonder about the schizophrenic nature of the discourse of human rights altogether. Every time a State Department official criticises human rights abuses in a poor unstable or destabilised country, or any other country, it should bring howls of condemnation for its hypocrisy. Even Iran has more authority to talk about human rights than the US and we would never let them condemn others without, quite rightly, including references to their own failings.

The US is a ruthless global hegemon. It is a prolific human rights abuser because of its global reach, but by the same token its global power is a function of an interventionism which is inevitably contrary to the human rights of those in targeted states. Even though other regimes share responsibility for some of its crimes, and others are guilty of their own, it has no real competition for title of greatest human rights abuser. This is an ever-present reality and unavoidably pertinent context of global human rights concerns. HRW must rid itself of the cognitive dissonance that it promotes by seemingly forgetting this whenever there is evidence that an enemy of the West has committed human rights abuses. It cannot ever, ever be seen to be in agreement with the US whatever the circumstances and should always make references to the human rights abuses of the US when the US government is a topic of discussion.

HRW must concentrate its efforts on the human rights abuses of the most powerful states, starting with the US. It must also exercise the greatest vigilance over intelligence claiming condemnable acts by weak and insecure states, especially where those states are governed by regimes considered inimical by the West .

Above all, HRW must reconcile itself to the limitations of its role. It is self-evidently seductive to take evidence of wrongdoing to powerful actors to get them to take robust immediate action. That way you might really feel that you are making a real difference. But people killed by hellfire missiles are just as dead as those killed by barrel bombs and anyone who acts to legitimise the former killings by condemning the latter is an accomplice in the crime.

HRW can record human rights abuses and raise awareness among populations who can oppose the actions of their own governments and render solidarity and support to victims and dissidents in other countries. At the same time, however, HRW must actively reject providing even tacit support for state actions outside of the framework of the UN Charter and must be extremely discriminating when supporting state intervention under the Charter. [Under the letter of the law the sanctions imposed on Iraq were according to the UN Charter, but they were also one of the most appalling and deadly criminal acts of our times and contravened the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and parts of International Humanitarian Law such as the prohibition on collective punishment in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.]

HRW must do more than simply reject the careerism of those who move in powerful circles, it must become an active and consistent opponent of empire. To be independent it must always, and at every opportunity, overtly reject working with Western state power. People within HRW must search within themselves. They must look at the greater picture of violence and suffering in the world and ask where the ultimate sources are. They must protest collaboration and demand change. If necessary, they must become like the IVS volunteers in Viet Nam who chose to stop doing good in order to stop promoting far greater harm.

Kieran Kelly blogs at On Genocide .


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